When Prisoners Work should they be Paid?


I just read an interesting story from the Guardian which brings up memories of movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke.

What is happening and happened in the past is prisoners in the penal system do work but are paid either nothing for this work or a few pennies an hour. We’re all aware the United States incarcerates far more of its population than any other country in the world. That we largely use private contractors to house these prisoners. These private contractors get your tax dollars to run the prisons and operate on a profit system. They want more prisoners because that accrues more tax dollars into their pockets.

Harm to Contractors

The problem here is they are using prisoners to do the work in the prisons and additional work outside the prison. This avoids payment to contractors who would otherwise be doing the work in the system. Generating further profits for work done outside the system.


Q1: Is it right to use prisoners as essentially slave labor because they were convicted of a crime?

A1: If you want prisoners to work then pay them a fair wage for their work. That’s capitalism. Certainly doing so would drive up the cost of incarcerating people but I think the reasons I’m going to enumerate in answering the other questions fully justifies such an expense.

Q2: Is it right to pay private prison contractors money for things like laundry service when the prisoners are providing it essentially for free?

A2: I’m absolutely in disagreement with this practice. If private prisons are going to use prisoners as slave labor then the government should not be paying the private company for the services rendered. The state is paying the prison to feed, cloth, house, and otherwise take care of the prisoner. The private company should be doing so out of the money paid to them from tax dollars.

Q3: What effect on other companies does using prisoners for work have on the economy of the region?

A3: This is the answer that goes to the very heart of the problem from a capitalistic point of view. Slavery was terrible for the economies of the southern states for the simple reason it took jobs away from otherwise able workers. It stole profits from companies wanting to provide the service that slaves did, and slavery worked against innovation and technology. For the exact same reasons we should not be employing prisoners to do work for free or for ridiculously low wages. Every service a prisoner provides is work taken from an able-bodied person. It removes profits that could be made for the company employing said person.


I’m not opposed to prisoners working but they should be paid fair wages for said work. This has additional benefits. It gives prisoners a sense of worth and accomplishment in finishing tasks. It gives prisoners money to accumulate for their eventual release which makes their rehabilitation into society significantly less difficult. Prisoners should also have access to educational material so that they can, should they so choose, improve their chances of getting gainful employment when released.

Finally I’m opposed to using prisoners as slaves simply on ethical grounds. It is wrong to force another person to labor without wages under any circumstances. Prisoner or not.

What do you think?

Should prisoners be paid fair wages for their work while incarcerated?

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Tom Liberman

5 thoughts on “When Prisoners Work should they be Paid?

  1. Pingback: When Prisoners Work should they be Paid? - Tom Liberman - Liberty.me

  2. I think they should be paid an amount so they are able to purchase things from the commissary and it will assist their families tremendously by not having to send their hard earned money to their loved ones who are in prison.

    Some prisoners do enjoy the work as it is a time to get out of their cell & feel they are contributing something makes the LONG days/nights a little faster, so no reason not to give them a little.

    However, you do not want to pay same as on the outside…what is the incentive to save money, rehabilitate & get out with a goal in mind. Maybe instead of giving them menial tasks like laundry we should be giving them tools to learn a trade? Welding, HVAC, Construction? All great things they could utilize when they are released?

    • Thank you for the comment,

      As I mentioned, I do think education is an important part of incarceration and rehabilitation.

      That being said, I think if someone works they should be paid regular wages. The incentive to get out is to be free. To be able to eat what you want. What you purchased. To be with your family and friends. To have a beer. To be free. I think there is a much better chance a prisoner will want to get out of prison if they’ve built up a nest egg of funds so that they can get a fair start at life. If they know the life outside of prison is just going to be debt and misery there is less incentive to get out. In my opinion at least.


  3. You are right in your belief that the inmates should be paid a wage, l feel minimum wage would be fair,any people on the outside have to live on this.

    • Good morning, MaryAnn, and thank you for the comment.

      I argue everyone, prisoner or not, should be paid fair-wages for their work. What these wages entail is not easy to define but fixing it as a minimum wage is, in my opinion, not a good idea. Let’s take Andy Dufresne from Shawshank as an example. He provided legal services worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the guards and warden. By not paying him the going rate he is subject to theft. A crime. As Brad wrote in his comment to the original article we don’t want to incentive imprisonment as a way to create minimum wage laborers, this just encourages the system to make more prisoners and that takes jobs from the rest of us who have yet to be arrested for some made up crime.

      Thank you for the comment and come back any time!


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